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Dec. 04, 2005
Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

VIN SUPRYNOWICZ: If a black man is armed, is he a criminal?

An "old police tradition of requiring off-duty officers to carry their weapons -- 'always armed, always on duty' -- is being scaled back in police departments nationwide following the shootings of off-duty officers by colleagues who thought they were criminals," The Associated Press reported Nov. 28 in a story datelined Providence, R.I.

Providence's policy is now being re-examined as the city faces a $20 million civil rights lawsuit over the shooting of Sgt. Cornel Young Jr., who was killed in 2000 while he was off duty and trying to break up a fight.

Young's mother says the rookie officer who shot her son was not adequately trained to recognize off-duty or plainclothes officers.

Earlier this year, an Orlando police officer fatally shot a plainclothes colleague who was investigating underage drinking outside the Citrus Bowl. The plainclothes officer had gotten into a scuffle with tailgaters and fired his gun into the air.

In 2001, two uniformed officers shot and killed an undercover detective when he pointed his gun at a suspected car thief in Oakland, Calif.

So now, the 20,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police has called for off-duty officers who witness a crime to call for assistance rather than pulling a weapon.

You don't need bifocals to read between the lines and see where that's heading: No cop needs to carry a gun when off duty. At which point, how long do you suppose it will be before we're told, "Not even off-duty cops can carry guns anymore; surely an average civilian, without a peace officer's level of training, shouldn't be allowed to blunder around carrying one of these indiscriminate weapons of death."

First let us point out a vital component of this reported trend that The Associated Press seems too politically correct to note: rookie Providence police officer Cornel Young Jr. was a young black man.

Add that fact to the equation, and let us see if we can summarize the logical chain of argument at hand:

1) When police officers see people carrying or drawing guns who they cannot readily identify as fellow police officers, they tend to shoot them and ask questions later, especially if they're black.

2) This is leading to the deaths of off-duty cops by friendly fire.

3) The solution is to discourage or prevent off-duty officers from using or carrying firearms.

Anyone else see a problem, here? How about that first premise?

America is an armed nation. The Second Amendment guarantees each American the right to own and carry firearms. Further, the 14th Amendment further bars any state or local authority from infringing this vital right for U.S. citizens. (And if you read your history books, you know the Congress meant especially "black citizens.")

In its 1997 study "Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms," the National Institute of Justice determined 25 percent of Americans own guns. In 1994, 44 million Americans owned 192 million firearms, of which 65 million were handguns. And John Lott has conclusively demonstrated, in his epochal book "More Guns, Less Crime," that whenever a state or county "allows" more law-abiding citizens to carry handguns, violent crime rates go down.

Instead of disarming off-duty cops so the police can continue to feel free to shoot anyone out of uniform who they see with a gun (especially if he's black), why not alter police training as follows?

"This is an armed nation. Twenty-five percent of your fellow 'civilians' own firearms, and have a God-given right to carry them around. Except for writing traffic tickets for revenue, they have just as much right to chase and apprehend a fleeing felon -- or to present a weapon in defense of themselves or others -- as you do. This includes black folks. Get used to it.

"So, even though it may initially seem to make our jobs harder, let's stop hassling people when we perceive they have guns. If a call comes in reporting a 'man with a gun,' let's ask whether the man is brandishing or threatening anyone, and otherwise advise the caller that being armed is not a crime.

"And, particularly, let's stop shooting people who draw their guns when they're being assaulted. Yes, pausing those extra few seconds may sometimes put your own life in danger. This is still a less-dangerous job than hard-rock mining or fishing in Alaska, and you volunteered for it."

No, the off-duty Florida officer should not have fired his gun into the air to break up a scuffle. That's dumb. But with all due respect to Young's grieving mother, no, the problem is not that Providence cops had trouble recognizing an off-duty fellow officer. The problem is that their first instinct when they saw a black man with a gun who was not obviously a police officer, was to shoot him.

The police chiefs should be urging more citizens to go armed so their men get used to it, not trying to turn us into a police state, which is defined as "a place where only the police carry guns."

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of "Send in the Waco Killers" and the new novel "The Black Arrow." His Web sites are or